Efrem Lutatsky/AP

Ukraine president signs long-awaited EU trade agreement

Rejection of agreement amid pro-EU protests last November led to president’s downfall

Ukraine's parliament on Tuesday ratified a landmark agreement on political association and trade with the European Union — the rejection of which last November by then-President Viktor Yanukovych led to his downfall amid violent protests, which in turn precipitated an armed uprising by pro-Russian separatists.

The agreement, whose ratification was synchronized with the European Parliament's in Strasbourg, won unanimous support from the 355 deputies who took part in the vote. Russia has opposed Kiev's signing of the EU treaty, amid concern over losing influence over former Soviet republics. 

Referring to the deaths of anti-government protesters who came out against Yanukovych's rejection of the pact with the EU — and of soldiers killed while fighting separatists — President Petro Poroshenko said, "No nation has ever paid such a high price to become Europeans."

The agreement on Tuesday comes after a free trade pact between Ukraine and the EU was signed in June, marking another step toward integration with the bloc's 500 million citizens. The EU and Ukraine already signed parts of the agreement dealing with political cooperation in March. But on Friday, in a nod to Russia, the EU and Ukraine agreed to delay full implementation of that deal until next year.

Click here for more coverage of Ukraine’s crisis.

U.S. troops began multinational military exercises in Ukraine on Monday amid fighting between government forces and pro-Russian rebels in the restive east that has tested a 10-day-old truce. The Pentagon said the training would not involve live ammunition and would be a peacekeeping exercise.

The conflict in Ukraine, sparked by mass protests last fall in Kiev with demonstrators calling on leaders to establish closer ties to the EU, has taken more than 2,700 lives.

Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and U.S. support for European-friendly leadership in Ukraine have led to the worst Moscow-Washington relations since the Cold War. Western countries have levied increasingly severe sanctions against Russia.

Fighting broke out after last year’s unrest as separatist-minded rebels in eastern Ukraine began battling government troops, sending at least half a million people fleeing the violence.

On Tuesday, Ukraine's parliament also passed a law to give the pro-Russian eastern regions special status, including a degree of self-governance for a three-year period, according to parliamentary deputies who attended the closed session.

A second law that was passed would grant an amnesty to separatists who were involved in recent fighting with government forces, the deputies told Reuters.

Separately, Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Geletey said Sunday that NATO member states were sending weapons to Ukraine, though this was previously denied. A NATO official said he could neither confirm nor deny the claim "as any such delivery would be done on a bilateral basis.”

In response, Russian parliamentary speaker Sergei Naryshkin said Tuesday any deliveries of weapons from NATO countries to Kiev would be abetting war crimes being committed in eastern Ukraine.

"We have heard from various sources that the Kiev regime has been promised deliveries of weapons and military hardware from various countries of the bloc," Interfax quoted Naryshkin as saying at a ceremony to open the autumn session of the lower house of parliament.

Russia has accused Ukraine of shelling civilian quarters in its fight against pro-Russian separatists in the east and has pointed to a recent Amnesty International report that documents evidence of human rights abuses by Ukraine's Aidar Battalion.

Amnesty International said there has been evidence of war crimes by both government forces and the rebels, who Kiev and the West say are supported openly by Russian troops.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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